[Hpn] seattletimes.com: More Americans in poverty and uninsured, Census says

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Fri, 27 Aug 2004 04:21:42 -0700

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More Americans in poverty and uninsured, Census says
Full story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002017115_poverty27.html

By Peter G. Gosselin
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — An additional 1.3 million Americans slipped into poverty last year, and the number who went without health insurance grew by 1.4 million, the government reported yesterday. It was the third year of bad news in both trends.

 The new Census Bureau numbers also show that the annual income of middle-class Americans, which fell in 2001 and 2002, leveled off last year. Census analysts said the income of households at the center of the economic spectrum was $43,318 in 2003, $63 below the 2002 level.

 With job and wage growth earlier this year showing signs of weakening, that could prove cold comfort to millions of working Americans or to President Bush, who faces a tight re-election battle against Sen. John  Kerry, D-Mass.

 "For the third year in a row, the news was basically not good," said Ron Haskins, a former senior Republican congressional staffer now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

 "It's reasonable to think income and poverty will improve some in 2004, but they didn't last year." 

Kerry seizes on numbers

Both political camps engaged in a furious effort yesterday to put their cast on Census' latest portrait of Americans' economic circumstances.

 Kerry seized on the new numbers as proof that the Bush administration's economic policies had failed. In a statement, he ticked off the trends since 2000 — median household income down more than $1,500; an additional 5.2 million individuals without health insurance and another 4.3 million in poverty.

 "While George Bush tries to convince America's families that we're turning the corner, slogans and empty rhetoric can't hide the real story," Kerry said.

Bush campaign counters

In addition, some Democrats charged that the administration had moved up release of the Census numbers by one month to avoid delivering bad economic news in the midst of the fall election campaign. Census officials denied the charge, and some independent observers questioned whether the early release was of much help to Republicans.

 The Bush campaign countered that Census' income and poverty numbers painted an incomplete picture by not including  tax cuts championed by the president.

 Bush made no mention of the figures in three campaign appearances yesterday in New Mexico. But campaign aides rushed out a response.

 On poverty: "The poverty rate is still below the average rate of the 1980s and 1990s."

 On health insurance: "The percentage of uninsured is still below its highest point during the Clinton administration."

In addition, senior Republicans, including Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, offered glass-half-full interpretations of the Census numbers. He noted that although the number of people without health insurance grew last year, the number with coverage also grew by almost 1 million.

 "More people in America have health coverage today," Barton said, "and I think that's a fact worth noting."

 In a twist that could prove embarrassing to free-market Republicans, Census figures show that the reason the ranks of the insured swelled was substantial growth in government-provided health coverage, especially through Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, which offset a third straight year of declines in the number covered by employer-provided insurance.

 "This shows that government can effectively offset economic hardships generated by the market economy," said Sheldon Danziger, a public-policy scholar at the University of Michigan. "Government can work."

Concerning Washington state, the Census Bureau reported the poverty rate rose to 11.4 percent between 2001 and 2003. The state's uninsured ranks also rose from the previous three-year period to 14.3 percent, the highest it has been in a decade. That estimate is sharply higher than the uninsured rate from the 2002 Washington State Population Survey, which found that 8.4 percent, or 506,000 Washingtonians, lacked health coverage in 2002. That was an increase from 7.7 percent in 2000.

Thea Mounts, senior forecasting analyst for the Washington Office of Financial Management, which conducts the population survey, attributed the discrepancy  between the federal and state data to the differences in the way that the two surveys are conducted. For instance, the state population survey includes about 17,000 respondents, three times the size of the Census Bureau's sample. State officials also check Medicaid enrollment to prevent undercounting people who have public insurance but may be reluctant to report it.

According to the 2002 population survey, nearly 70 percent of uninsured Washington residents younger than 65 are members of working families and 15 percent are children. Middle-class families are the state's fastest-growing segment of the uninsured, with 23 percent of them coming from families earning more than 300 percent of the poverty level.

 The U.S. poverty level for 2003 was an average of $9,393 for a one-member household and $18,810 for a four-member family.

More children in poverty

Overall, 35.9 million Americans lived in poverty in 2003, up from 34.6 million in 2002, according to the Census Bureau. The increase pushed up the poverty rate — the portion of the population in poverty — from 12.1 percent to 12.5 percent.

 Children accounted for half the increase in the number of people living in poverty. An additional 700,000 children younger than 18 lived below the poverty level in 2003, according to Census, driving the total to 12.9 million children. The poverty rate for children rose from 16.7 percent in 2002 to 17.6 percent in 2003.

 Some 45 million people, or 15.6 percent of the population, went without health insurance last year, Census said. That was an increase from the 43.6 million, or 15.2 percent, who lacked coverage in 2002.

 In contrast to the poverty trends, the number of children without health coverage fell by 158,000 between 2002 and 2003, leaving the uninsured rate for children at 11.4 percent.

  Although the median household income for the nation remained flat in 2003, it fell a sharp 2.6 percent for Hispanics, from $33,861 in 2002 to $32,997 last year. A separate measure showed that incomes of foreign-born households fell an even sharper 3.5 percent.

 Analysts said most of the trends in the new Census figures were traceable to the recession and the nation's stubbornly under-performing labor market since 2001. "The impact is written all over these results," said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

 The declines in median income and health coverage and the rise in poverty have been about half as large as those that occurred in recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. But they have proved strikingly persistent and have widened the gap between the nation's haves and have-nots.

 Analysts said the fraction of the nation's total income going to the poorest 20 percent of households slipped from 3.5 percent to 3.4 percent, its lowest level since Census began keeping records in 1967. By contrast, the fraction going to the top 20 percent of households rose to almost 50 percent last year.

Information on Washington state was provided by Seattle Times staff reporter Kyung M. Song.


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